Wednesday, April 18, 2007


[Jo] felt so deeply injured that she really couldn’t quite forgive yet. So she winked hard, shook her head, and said gruffly, because Amy was listening: "It was an abominable thing, and she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven."
… Amy was much offended that her overtures of peace had been repulsed, and began to wish she had not humbled herself, to feel more injured than ever, and to plume herself on her superior virtue in a way which was particularly exasperating.
(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women)

In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily Climbs, Emily Starr (formerly of New Moon) goes to live with her strict, respectable, and utterly unimaginative Aunt Ruth Dutton. A measure of Aunt Ruth’s narrow-mindedness is her propensity to "forgive" Emily for a variety of imagined offenses, such as sitting in the corner of the church pew or spilling a pot of ink. "I’ll forgive you this time," she sniffs disdainfully, "but don’t let it happen again."

For an act associated with grace, forgiveness has a reputation for being offered – or demanded – most ungraciously. Today’s roundtable on forgiveness and justice bears witness to how complex, and variously understood, the concept of forgiveness can be. Gwen quotes the Hindu perspective from which forgiveness appears fundamentally cruel, a burden tied to the backs of those who are already stumbling under the weight of suffering and victimization. Jen, on the other hand, talks about the arrogance of forgiveness, the assumption of judgment and superiority that is necessarily involved in the act of granting absolution.

"Ninety percent of the Christian walk is forgiveness," a wise woman once told me. Forgiveness is an essential component to my faith, and as such it is a core value for me. I believe in forgiveness, in its social and spiritual value, but perhaps rather than trying to defend this view, I’ll focus instead on my own personal list of what forgiveness is not.

  • Forgiveness does not deny the wrongfulness of the act. On the contrary: it insists upon it. That’s precisely why people like Aunt Ruth Dutton are so annoying – to extend forgiveness to someone who is not aware of wrongdoing will seem obnoxious at best and authoritarian at worst.

  • Forgiveness does not always mean full restoration of the relationship. I struggled with this after my split from my ex-husband. Does the doctrine of forgiveness require me to return to my marriage? I concluded that it did not. Christianity requires one to forgive the wrongdoer, but not necessarily to have sex with him.

  • Forgiveness is not consequence-free. (Otherwise known as "enabling.") Forgiveness does not require one to go around coddling and protecting the wrongdoer from all natural and/or socially imposed consequences for his wrongful act. But it may help one determine just what consequences are in the wrongdoer’s best interests, as well as those of society as a whole.

  • Forgiveness is not risk-free. Sometimes, though not always, forgiveness involves the restoration of trust. As such it involves the willing assumption of risk.

  • Forgiveness is not something to which anyone is entitled. After Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, her apology – or, at least, her expectation of forgiveness – is premature. When she begins to "plume herself on her superior virtue," she reveals her shallow understanding of the gravity of her offense. (Jo forgives Amy by the end of the chapter, but I never have.) To be sure, Jo would not be justified in holding a grudge for the rest of her life – to forgive, one must relent before the full pound of flesh has been exacted. But the obligation to forgive is not based on any entitlement on the part of the offender – it has more to do with the mercy one has already received from others than with the behaviour or desires of the offender.

  • Forgiveness is not the same thing as letting go of anger. Sometimes we have to let go of anger that is irrational, selfish, or unjustified. This is not the same thing as forgiveness, though it often feels like it. Even when anger is justified, forgiveness doesn’t fully take place until it is both given and received. If the perpetrator denies his guilt or refuses contact with the victim, letting go of anger may be a powerful psychological process for the victim, but forgiveness has not fully taken place.

  • Forgiveness is not like an invitation to the all-you-can-eat buffet. To be forgiven, by definition, means to get more than you deserve, but that doesn’t make it fun, or easy. To receive forgiveness graciously requires genuine compunction and humility. In my books, at least, that means it’s harder to be forgiven than to forgive.

Like all of his novels, Alexander McCall Smith’s most recent addition to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, is all about ordinary mercies. Smith is an anatomist of the quotidien, pinpointing the moments of compassion, forgiveness, and self-discipline that grease the wheels of everyday life. This was a review copy, but Smith hardly needs me to puff his book for him, so rather than review the book I’ll close with a small anecdote from it:

"Let me tell you about something that happened at the orphan farm. We had a child who was stealing from the food cupboard. Everybody knew that. The housemother in charge of that cupboard had seen the child do it. The other children knew.

We talked to the child and told him that what he was doing was wrong. But still the stealing went on. And so we tried something different. We put a lock on the cupboard."

Mma Ramotswe laughed. "That seems reasonable enough, Mma."

"You may laugh," said Mma Potokwane. "But then let me tell you what we did next. We gave the key to that child. All the children have little tasks that they must do. We put that boy in charge of the cupboard."


"And that stopped the stealing. Trust did it. We trusted him, and he knew it. So he stopped stealing. That was the end of the stealing."

Forgiveness is risky; it is powerful; but above all, it is surprising. It runs counter to our instincts. What is amazing is that it ever happens at all.


Jenifer said...

First? No pressure.
I believe in all your what forgiveness is not points. As a Christian myself it is a core belief and probably the one I struggle with the most. Acknowledging what forgiveness is not helps with that though, it allows you to remain angry and doesn't erase the transgression which many equate with forgiveness.

I see forgiveness as the ultimate gift to yourself. It really is for your own internal peace in my opinion. Your soul needs this to move on, to accept the injustice no matter the magnitude.

I love the blurb from the Smith book, is there not a parable with the same sentiment? It is late and my mind is failing me, but this reminds me of something very familiar.

Wonderful post B&P.

Gwen said...

I am so tired right now, too tired to do this post the justice it deserves, but I have to say that I have never forgiven Amy either, nor Laurie for marrying her.

jen said...

so my question is, in your last example, was the boy forgiven or was it an embodiment of compassion?

i (heck, it's my theme today) would say that his suffering was recognized and rather than finding justice or forgiveness (am still not sure about that) found compassion instead.

so of course, he should hold the key.

Alpha DogMa said...

"Christianity requires one to forgive the wrongdoer, but not necessarily to have sex with him."
This sentiment would look just lovely embroidered on a pillow sham or nice wall sampler.
As would Jenifer's comment "I see forgiveness as the ultimate gift to yourself."
Great food for thought. A bedtime snack, if you will.

bubandpie said...

Jen - Since publishing this post last night I've been thinking about the word "mercy" in much the same way you've used "compassion." I think that mercy is something we can extend to people whether or not they are contrite, whether or not they even believe what they did was wrong. Mercy may lead to contrition, at which point it becomes forgiveness. Both mercy and forgiveness are usually actions rather than words - giving someone the key to the food cupboard is far more powerful than sniffing, "I'll forgive you this time, but don't let it happen again."

On other occasions, of course, contrition is the first step, one that can be enormously helpful to the one who is struggling to forgive. I admire contrition because I find it very, very hard to practise, as my husband noted last night after I unplugged his computer, accidentally kicking him off the Internet in the middle of an important online game. (But it wasn't my fault! It was all his fault!)

slouching mom said...

Your take on this is closest to my understanding of forgiveness.

Thank you for articulating it so well.

Bon said...

B&P, you're amazing. in the midst of a thoughtful post about concepts i've seldom bothered to ever problematize, you make me laugh. hey, i decided i wasn't obliged to go on having sex with my ex-husband too! but i think he's still in the process of forgiving me for that. ;)

this discussion - i still need to check out Gwen's place apparently - btwn you and Jen about the meanings of forgiveness and compassion is fascinating. i have no real contribution to make to it, because - as i said - i'm not sure i've ever given enough thought to either. but i am i thank you.

NotSoSage said...

Well, a couple of people have already pointed this out, but I love this: I concluded that it did not. Christianity requires one to forgive the wrongdoer, but not necessarily to have sex with him.

In such a thoughtful, poetic post.

I think you're very right about the idea of mercy that you have raised, and it was one I hadn't thought of because I was riding the coattails of jen and Julie. But what I like about the idea of compassion versus mercy is that (and maybe this is my own interpretation) there is an implied hierarchy.

I think of supreme beings of being merciful, or of someone with more advantages showing mercy to someone who is beholden to them. Compassion, on the other hand, seems to acknowledge the equality between the offender and the offended, the truth that we are all fallible ("Let ye who are without sin cast the first stone"). Not to mention that compassion can be extended by people not directly involved in the offense.

I've sensed a theme, lately, where the people who have been victimized react with less venom or show less desire for vengeance than those who were bystanders. To my mind, there is nothing that further removes the victim's power than others acting in their stead, without their consent.


Kyla said...

I'm playing catch up, so I haven't read any of the other roundtable posts...but this was excellent. I have a sneaky feeling it will be the post closest to my own feelings on the subject.

TrudyJ said...

Great post. It's such an endlessly interesting, and controversial, topic.

One thing I find interesting is that when my daughter (age 7) says she's sorry for anything -- to me or anyone else -- she gets VERY upset if the person just says "That's OK" or "All right." She has to hear the words "I forgive you." I've never known anyone else, child or adult, like this, but to her the "official" formal words of forgiveness are important to bring closure. And it feels weird to me, because saying "I forgive you" somehow makes the whole thing -- the offense and the apology -- seem much more serious. Forgiving does mean acknowledging a real wrong and then agreeing to put it behind you. I don't think I'd really process all that for a child's misdemeanour if she didn't require me to say it.

Julie Pippert said...

B&P, this is probably one of the best definitions of forgiveness I've seen. It's definitely the most representative of my own view, especially the portion on reconciliation.

I also never quite forgave (nor liked) Amy, and Gwen, I'm with you on the Laurie thing.

Like you and Jen, B&P, I've been thinking about the concepts of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

Mimi said...

I've been thinking about forgiveness a lot. And part of my new thinking about forgiveness is that when someone apologizes to me, I don't say, as I used to, "don't worry about it," or "pffff," or "forget it."

Now I say: "Thank you." And if I'm ready to forgive, I say, "I forgive you." That's hard to do, but kinda freeing at the same time.

Mad Hatter said...

S definitely not N. All this thinky-ness is making my head spin in ways that I don't even know how to internalize or respond to.

One thing that I have noticed in these discussions is the notions of justice and forgiveness are predicated on an "us vs them" bianary. There is a "victim" and a "wrongdoer." Now while I can see instances of how this might operate in the world of headline news, I don't see instances of how this operates in my own life. When I think back on the people who have done me wrong--the people who have hurt my feelings or demoralized me or were insensitive to struggles I was undergoing--I realize that I was never the clear victim. There was always give and take. We are all so complicit in the complex web of emotions and insecurities that lead to the need for justice and forgiveness. I sometimes don't really know who I have to forgive in this life b/c I don't know who I need forgiveness from.

I think this is why in my blogging and in my thinking about the world, I place so much emphasis on systemic problems rather than on the wrong-doings of individuals. By examining systems I can see more clearly where injustice lies than I can by looking at individual struggles.

Ow. All these posts are giving me a hurty thinky.

bubandpie said...

Everybody - Hierarchy is really the crux of the matter, isn't it? It's one of the reasons forgiveness (and even mercy) gets a bad rap - because to extend either is to implicitly place oneself in a hierarchically superior position. That makes such gestures ripe for abuse.

At the same time, I think there are situations where real wrongdoing requires the perpetrator to accept that subordinate position. That's why contrition is so hard - it's not just a matter of admitting what you did, or expressing willingness to change - it means placing oneself in a position of vulnerability in relation to the person who is wronged. I can think of very few situations in my life where that has happened - but it does happen.

And then there are the ordinary acts of forgiveness, the almost invisible ones we do every day where we simply refuse to press charges against the rude, the inconsiderate, the thoughtless. I can think quite readily of one such act on my part that I feel quite bad about, at least in part because I don't have the courage to express my contrition directly. And I'm very grateful for the forgiveness that has (apparently) been extended to me.

bren j. said...

So what I'd like to know now, are your thoughts about why it's so hard for us to actually SAY the words "Will you forgive me?" or "I forgive you."

Where we did ever come up with "Oh, don't worry about it" or "That's okay"?

I often catch myself and have to ask, 'Wait a minute; is it really okay? or am I just saying that to make the situation go away?'

TrudyJ's daughter and I concur; there's something about hearing the words "I forgive you" that brings closure on both sides.

Beck said...

Yes, why DID Laurie marry AMY? And why did Jo get stuck with Professor Elderly?
My husband once COMPLETELY BY ACCIDENT erased a whole winter's worth of poetry. He was horrified, but I knew it was an accident, so how angry could I be? Still. The urge to go all Jo on him was there....

Pieces said...

A wonderful summation that very closely matches my own feelings on forgiveness. One thing I have come to understand as I grow older is that forgiveness is almost entirely for the victim. We often hold on to bitterness and anger because we don't want to let the other person off. Forgiveness is not about letting the offender off but about allowing ourselves be free of the resentment. For that reason, I disagree that forgiveness is not fully accomplished until it is received. That would need to happen for the relationship to be restored but, as you already stated, reconciliation is not always possible or recommended.

bubandpie said...

Pieces - I've moved back towards a more offender- focused understanding of forgiveness. Until recently, I would have said exactly what you did, in part because of all the research showing the psychological benefits to the forgiver. But if we make forgiveness an internal process, think of it as only psychological, I think that de-radicalizes it a bit too much. It is still, fundamentally, about grace - undeserved kindness.

Mary-LUE said...

Recently, I gave my son a gift. It wasn't his birthday or any other gift giving type of day.

He had a hard time accepting it because he hadn't "done" anything lately to "deserve" it.

I tried to explain to him that a gift is just that: a gift. We very rarely "deserve" the gifts we are given. A gift is an expression of love.

I think there is something in forgiveness that is like a gift. It isn't about what is deserved.

(This in response to the ideas discussed in the comments about forgiveness being more for the forgiver or forgivee. I do think it is for both... but something about that part of the comment thread brought to my mind the picture of a gift bestowed.)

CampHillGirl said...

B&P--I love your site, maybe because I agree with so much, and so it represents my views pretty well. I'm a Christian, a mom, and I love Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, and read lots of mysteries. I need to ponder more the idea of whether forgiveness requires acceptance.

But, I think being forgiven (or asking for forgiveness) may feel more difficult, but I think doing the forgiving costs more, laying down one's right to revenge or anger or to glorying in one's "rightness". While the cost to the one being forgiven is merely pride. Along those lines, forgiveness does assume moral superiority in that the giver assumes the right and the receiver the wrong, but it is the act itself that restores the relationship to equality because true forgiveness relinquishes the right to lord itself over the offender.

I like MadHatter's point, too, that in real, ordinary life there is no great divide between sinner and offended; we are all both, often at the same time.

Sorry this is so long.

kittenpie said...

There was an intersting and apropos line in House last night... one of his team is castigating himself for having caused the death of a patient through a bad decision, and goes to each member of the team, each of whom refuses or cannot offer him whatever it is he needs. House says to him, "I can't forgive you, because there is nothing to forgive." Although he sense that forgiveness is what the younger doctor wants, he sees no trespass, no sin, and will or can not give him that - gift? what?